December 26, 2013

Review: Sex, Drugs, and 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

"This is obscene."

Prolific director Martin Scorsese has teamed up with star/producer Leonardo DiCaprio once again for what can only be described as a three-hour long drug and sex fuelled cautionary yet unapologetic celebration of American opulence and self-indulgence. The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the real-life exploits and memoir of 1990s penny stockbroker bad boy Jordan Belfort, is an outrageous ode to the criminal hedonism of Wall Street excess. It's a purely visceral experience enhanced by every kind of mind altering substance or act possible in order to explore the total depravity of the human spirit.

Clocking in at one minute under three hours, this is a very long film (Scorsese's longest to date) and you can really feel it as we move from every era of Belfort's exploits. Writer Terrence Winter is working with so much material, enough for a season of television, as Scorsese constructs the picture with a luxurious pace full of lengthy monologues, voiceovers, side characters, and endless sequences of insanity.

The film is so off-puttingly bright and mainstream in how it feels and appeals to common ideals and desires of wealth and success. Its narrow scope on greed and amorality don't hinder its explicitly and inherently cinematic pleasurability.

With so much excess and depravity, DiCaprio owns the screen with a tour de force, physical performance of sheer will and skill. His energetic acts of disturbing fetishism are always amusing to watch as he bears it all for scene after scene of comic debauchery. It's refreshing to see him having fun, manically so, without any sense of tension or torture. Scorsese isn't interested in a history or ethics lesson. Instead, we're thrown into a first account of how one man took on the American Dream and twisted it well past any semblance of a logic or reason.

Belfort is a monster addicted to substances, sex, and adulation, but Scorsese makes it clear, he's really no different than anyone else on Wall Street or many of the suckers he's scamming looking for get rich quick schemes. Through lengthy monologues, DiCaprio begins to describe his crimes before stopping, acknowledging its inconsequentialness. It's not entirely clear exactly what securities fraud or legal rangling he's guilty of. These men are so consumed with ambition and self-imagery as they celebrate their dreams of excess with a kinetic narrative momentum of pure exhilaration.

Comedian Jonah Hill proves he belongs around this talented company, playing Belfort's right hand man, Donnie Azoff (a fictionalized version of Belfort's real-life partner). Donnie is a stand in for the idea of reinvention, transforming his image from Long Island Jew to WASP-y stockbrocker. Hill is disdainful while being compellingly watchable in his despicable actions as sidekick and wingman.

Weaved into Belfort's journey is his gorgeous bombshell muse of an ex-wife Naomi, played by Margot Robbie, an underserved yet mysteriously insatiable cypher in her beauty and poise. Matthew McConaughey in an early sequence explains the rules of the game as he mentors Belfort on how stocks and the dark world of Wall Street really works. It's a more than memorable performance that establishes the tone quickly.

Scorsese, Winter, and DiCaprio have crafted a classic American rise and fall story, both maddeningly skillful as it is hysterical, just as it toasts a world we're still struggling to both admire and revile. Belfort's story is so disturbing and depraved, only such talent could do it justice. However, in doing so and being true to the spirit of his ridiculous quest for money, both the film and his life go dangerously off the rails as an often unfocused, opulent, excessively stylish portrait. The Wolf of Wall Street is a film worthy of its real-life source material right to the empty come down feeling after an amazing high.

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